Facebook remains a thriving marketplace for online wildlife trading despite the technology giant’s promise to help fight the illegal trade, according to a new study.
Tiger cubs, leopards, ocelots, African gray parrots and the world’s smallest monkey, the pygmy silk skin, were among the endangered animals that researchers from the global campaign group Avaaz found on Facebook pages and public groups.
Illegal trade in wild animals is the world’s fourth largest illegal transnational activity, falling close behind drugs, human trafficking and counterfeiting. The multibillion-dollar business is associated with a myriad of damages, including animal cruelty, endangered species and ecosystems and promoting the transmission of diseases from animals to humans such as coronavirus, Ebola, dengue, anthrax and bird flu.
In 2018, Facebook, which has more than 2.9 billion monthly users, founded Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online together with experts like WWF, which set out to reduce illegal trade by 80% by 2020.
The company says it has made progress, but Wednesday’s report suggests that Facebook remains a popular platform for pet dealers.
In two days earlier this year, researchers found 129 potentially harmful content “in a matter of clicks” through the Facebook search bar, including posters selling or looking for cheetahs, monkeys, lion cubs and elephant tusks – animals listed in the International Convention trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora (Cites).
This included a Facebook page called “Wildlife Trade, Pangolin Scale & Rhino Horn” that encouraged bidders on their animals by posting a picture of a pangolin in a cage.
“Commercial smugglers do not shy away from listing their goods for sale in public groups, nor from including their phone numbers in their listings,” said Ruth Delbaere, senior legal advocate at Avaaz. “On Facebook, wildlife is traded in broad daylight.”
In the following weeks, Facebook made 95 wildlife-focused recommendations to researchers through messages and the “suggested groups” feature. Of these, 76% were postings seeking to buy or sell live animals, which was likely contrary to Facebook’s own policies.
The ease with which they were referred to these sites suggests that Facebook’s algorithms do not comply with its own policies or public commitment to curb online wildlife trade, the report concludes.
“Instead of using the data to help fight wildlife trafficking, their algorithms instead help criminals grow their business,” said Gretchen Peters, CEO of Alliance to Counter Crime Online.
Four Avaaz researchers with no background in investigating wildlife trade entered search terms such as “exotic pets”, “monkey for sale” and “pangolin scales” in English, Spanish and Portuguese. They were looking for potentially harmful posts, which they defined as content that warranted further investigation to determine if it constituted illegal wildlife trade.
According to the report, it appeared that Facebook removed 13% of the suspicious posts about wildlife trafficking they found before the researchers reported them. After the posts were reported, Facebook had only removed 43% a week after Avaaz alerted the company using its “report post” tool.
“Facebook not only knows that wildlife trade thrives on their platform – they have known about it for years. Yet they openly continue to ignore the problem – or worse – activate it, and even violate their own self-proclaimed stance against criminal activity. and physical harm to animals.The results of this study are duly noted, “said Raúl Grijalva, Democratic congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
In 2018, Grijalva called for a study on the role of the social network in the illegal trade in wild animals.
In a statement, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, questioned the validity of the survey’s methodology and sample size, saying the results did not reflect the work they had done to combat wildlife trade.
A Meta spokesman said: “We have been pioneering technology to help us find and remove this content; launched pop-up alerts to discourage people from engaging in this trade. Between January and May 2021 alone in Indonesia and “In the Philippines, we removed over 1,900 Facebook groups linked to wildlife trade as a result. However, this is a conflicting space, and the people behind this horrific activity are persistent and constantly developing their tactics to try to avoid these efforts.”
The report calls on Facebook to strengthen and enforce policies to stop wildlife trade, including restricting certain search results and changing their algorithms, as well as cooperating with law enforcement and government agencies to combat wildlife trade online.